With thanks to Jason:
Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence makes a strong case for letting authentic work be the evidence of learning. The books is remarkable, as is the work of Berger and his students, because it shows that assessing students by their work is possible and valid. Berger works with Expeditionary Learning, a organization that partners with schools to transform student learning through field work, the creation of “high-quality products for audiences beyond the classroom,” and supportive school cultures that value and foster safe and effective critique and co-learning.
I often ask myself why I find Berger’s work so remarkable, and why I haven’t done much like it with my students. Why don’t I let my students’ work stand as evidence of their learning? Why do I use summative assessment? Assignments that aren’t project-based? Tests that correlate 1:1 to my curriculum but not my students?
Where am I that it’s remarkable to find a teacher who assesses students through their work – not through grades or other ciphers – but through critique and coaching? Through peer feedback and expert mentoring?
Why am I here? To whom or what am I beholden for the chance to teach and learn like Ron Berger and his students?
More concretely, here I am, sitting behind an enormous picture window, looking out on my last day of vacation on the Atlantic shore. I’ve just finished my rambling re-watching of the entire 5-season run of The Wire, a Baltimore-set brutal, human, tragic, and sometimes heartening account of the society in which we live, our hiding-in-the-open complicity with it’s failures, and the consequences of our compromises with the systems in which we operate. The Wire speaks to teaching, learning, and #edreform throughout its run, though season 4, in particular, looks at school.
The structure of the show and its cadences discourage, in my mind, bite-sized viewing. It gives itself time to tell years-long stories of its principal and supporting casts. It approaches a human time scale that “here we are again” pop TV conventions don’t even attempt to apprehend.
You could call it a police procedural so long as you’re also willing to call it a drug-dealing procedural, a stevedore procedural, a school procedural, a newsroom procedural, and a human procedural.
It’s an amazing product. It surpasses everything I’ve watched in terms of performance, structure, payoff, and reflection. I like it better than most books I’ve read and music I’ve heard. I love to talk about the show – to read about it and to watch it – but I can’t imagine ever grading it.
Could I ever love my students’ work so much? Could I ever be so excited to talk about it – to read about it and to watch it? Could I ever want to go back to look at it again and again? By designing it? Assigning it? Grading it?
People who care deeply about other people, about Baltimore, and about our shared personal responsibility for caring for one another made The Wire. I didn’t assign it. I found it. I let the creators, cast, and crew move me.
How can I approach teaching and learning the same way? Ready to be amazed? How can I approach assessment the same way? Ready to watch and listen and think and imagine further?
What amazing things could my students and I find together in the work they want to do? What amazing things hiding in the open could we discover about our lives and world if we didn’t always tie up content with a bow? If we didn’t choose to make public education so brusquely episodic and pretend that learning operates the way a school does? If we acknowledged that we’re all together in a system that we choose to challenge or not?
I’ve come to believe that the best assessment is hiding in the open – it’s human, reciprocal – but not necessarily transactional – and perhaps inelegant if trial and error seem any less of a mess than complacency. It comes from conversation about student work between people who value and acknowledge students, their relationships, and the learning they do throughout their lives.
I’ve come to suspect that grades are what I tell myself when I know I’ve assigned work that doesn’t carry value of its own.
So this year I’ll be hiding in the open, resisting grades as best I can, writing about the conversations we have and the learning we do without them, and following the work of reformers in schools. I’ll be trying to help my students amaze us, to take on a measure of responsibility for learning and community that my teaching and assessment practices very well may may have precluded them from taking in the past.
Here I am. Stop by and help keep me accountable. Maybe talk a while about The Wire. You know. In a middle-school appropriate way. Right?